Obituary: Grover Washington Jnr

TO THOSE of us for whom Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Gil Evans were immortal milestones along the highway of jazz, Grover Washington Jnr equated to a set of traffic lights on a minor road.

Along with present-day universities and funders of the arts, to whom "swing" and "mainstream" are dirty words, whilst anything "contemporary" is good, he was responsible over the last 30 years for the decomposition of the term "jazz" as a definition of creative music with form, beauty and admirable invention. In a parallel situation in classical music, such authorities would have considered the music of Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart redundant.

Washington appeared on the scene at a time when the fad was for "fusion" and "crossover" music. These employed the substitution of invention in jazz with a dilution of it, with "pop", "funk", "soul music" and anything that removed from both the musician and the audience the necessity to think. Washington was very good at this and became one of the most popular saxophonists of all time.

It must be said that, within the saccharine settings that were used to back him, he did try to play creative (i.e. improvised) music but never pretended to the mastery of subtlety and nuance that would have made him a memorable contributor to jazz. He was, however, made to sound better than he was when his playing was compared with that of some of his disciples, notably David Sanborn and the even more famous Kenny G.

Washington's father, Grover Washington Snr, was a tenor saxophonist and he gave his son his first saxophone when he was 10. Grover Jnr's mother sang in a choir in Buffalo where the family lived and his brother played the organ in local churches. The youngest brother, Darryl, became a professional drummer.

"My early lessons were on the saxophone, then it was the piano, the drum and percussion family, and the bass guitar," said Washington. By the time he was 12, he was working in local clubs.

He left Buffalo to tour with a group called the Four Clefs between 1959 and 1963. For two years after that he worked with the organist Keith McAllister. Saxophone, organ and rhythm section was a hugely popular format in the United States and, after two years in the US Army in 1965-67, Washington worked with another organist, Charles Earland (who died on 11 December). He began to get work playing on "soul-jazz" dates, playing with popular organists and guitar players.

His first album under his own name came about entirely by accident, in September 1971. The alto saxophone player David "Fathead" Newman was due to record a set of arrangements for the Kudu label but was unable to present himself at the studio at the time and Washington was grabbed as a last-minute replacement. "My big break was blind luck," he said. He rose to the occasion triumphantly and the resulting album, Inner City Blues, was an enormous hit. On the strength of it Washington formed his own band to tour.

He was immediately swamped with bookings for festivals and concerts. Mostly he played popular hit songs on his three saxophones (soprano, tenor and alto, later adding flute) and used fashionable powerful amplification to let him keep pace with the electronic organs, guitars and pianos that also made up one of the fads of the day. But occasionally Washington, who was an accomplished master of his instrumental techniques, would switch off the electricity and play an acoustic version of a more esoteric jazz standard like "Loverman" or a graceful Billy Strayhorn tune such as "Passion Flower". The latter was included in his 1974 album Mister Magic, which became the first of a long string of his albums to win gold and platinum disc awards.

Eight of his albums reached the top of the charts. His most successful collection was Winelight (1980). On it he used the singer Bill Withers and the song "Just The Two of Us" became a hit as a single. The album climbed to No 5 in the US record charts before falling back exhausted.

His last record to get to the top of the jazz charts was Next Exit, in 1992. This contained the hit "Summer Chill", which he wrote with his son and which was nominated for a Grammy award. He played the themes for two popular television series, The Cosby Show and Moonlighting. Washington's music quickly spread worldwide and he followed it with tours of Europe, Japan and the Far East. The encyclopedias describe him as playing a fundamental role in shaping the "smooth jazz" of the Nineties.

His career continued to burgeon and in 1993 he played with President Bill Clinton (tenor sax) at a jam session at the White House after a concert held there to celebrate the aforementioned "smooth jazz". Good saxophone playing is not one of the talents for which Clinton was elected. Washington returned to blow at the President's 50th birthday celebrations at Radio City Music Hall in New York in 1996. "Grover Washington was as versatile as any jazz musician in America, moving with ease and fluency from vintage jazz to funk, and from gospel to blues to pop," Clinton said. "I will miss both the man and his music."

Washington was seldom out of one kind of a studio or another, so it was grimly appropriate that on Friday he had taped four songs to be used in CBS Television's Saturday Early Morning Show before collapsing and dying in the studio.

Grover Washington, saxophonist and bandleader: born Buffalo, New York 12 December 1943; married (one son, one daughter); died New York 17 December 1999.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum